“We Can’t Leave Anybody Behind”: COVID-19 to Have Major Impact on Refugee and Poor Communities

Apr 13 2020
By Patty Yelavich and Sarah M. Binder
Source Woodrow Wilson School
Forcibly displaced populations all over the world are at heightened risk as the coronavirus outbreak spreads, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Doug Mercado MPP ’07, a visiting lecturer at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, shares his views on the global pandemic’s potential effects on these communities. He provides insights from lessons learned during the Ebola crisis, and how his Wilson School graduate education prepared him for on-the-ground work on humanitarian disasters and conflict.
Mercado has recently led emergency response efforts for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in the Bahamas and Colombia. Previously, he led the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Disaster Assistance Response Team for the Ebola crisis in West Africa. Mercado has worked in the field of international disaster assistance and post-conflict recovery for most of the past 30 years. He has managed humanitarian relief operations and refugee assistance programs with the United Nations, the U.S. government, and nongovernmental organizations in more than two dozen countries.
Q. How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic will affect migrants and displaced populations, as well as other vulnerable and disadvantaged communities?
Mercado: It’s going to have a major impact. People in these situations normally live in very rough conditions. If you think about internally displaced person (IDP) or refugee camps, people are living in very crowded, high-density situations, so the coronavirus can spread quickly through these populations. Access to basic services that would help these populations during a pandemic are weak, at best. We think of health care services, anything about water, hygiene, sanitation services: These things can be scarce. Basic things we’re doing in the U.S. to reduce the spread of transmission — social distancing and constantly washing our hands — these are not necessarily an option for these folks. There’s almost no way they can stay six feet apart in crowded camps. People are generally not going to have access to adequate medical care should they become infected and ill. You’re not going to find ventilators in any of these small, relatively poorly equipped health centers at camps, so it’s going to be a real challenge.
Q. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from your experiences working on Ebola and other crises?
Mercado: First, you have to recognize that it’s a problem immediately and act swiftly and decisively. You have to put people in charge who have the authority to make tough decisions about preparedness and response. You need to get the communities to work with you. One of the challenging things about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa back in 2014 and 2015 was that it was clear that the outbreak was never going to end unless the populations of the countries that were principally affected changed their habits. Government leaders and international health and humanitarian agencies that were working on the Ebola outbreak put out messaging to encourage a change in behavior — no handshaking, no hugging, no kissing. One major element of ending transmission of the Ebola virus was getting people to change some deeply engrained customs and habits. In regards to the current COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of people in the U.S. don’t want to believe they are at risk and don’t want to change their behavior, thinking, "This is not going to really affect me. I’m young. I’m healthy." Slowly, the messaging is resonating that the coronavirus may not affect you directly, but you can still become infected and pass it on to your family members and so forth. You have to communicate with people in a way that’s going to make sense to them and make them really want to change their behavior. Because if they don’t want to, you are going to have a lot of problems. Individuals in the U.S. need to decide if they want to be part of the solution or part of the problem.
Q. How can different stakeholders (e.g., international aid organizations, governments, private sector organizations) most effectively respond to the outbreak?
Mercado: Governments have the responsibility first and foremost to take care of everybody within their borders. They must develop a holistic response strategy involving multiple domestic stakeholders including civil society, the private sector, the military, academia, and the media. If the crisis grows beyond the domestic capacity to respond, governments must seek assistance from other countries, the United Nations, humanitarian agencies, and other actors with international reach. Given that this is a global disaster with virtually every country reporting cases, the international system will be stretched to its limits to respond.
Q. A number of countries have closed their borders completely, and President Trump has halted the asylum process at the U.S.-Mexico border. What are your thoughts on the advantages and/or disadvantages of nations restricting or halting border crossings?
Mercado: Some experts say it can slow the transmission if done properly. But it’s probably not going to prevent the virus from spreading ultimately because we live in a globalized world. You may technically shut your borders to certain countries, but it doesn’t mean the virus can’t sneak in. Borders are fairly porous at the end of the day. And when you start closing down borders, that affects a lot of things — principally, the economy. Closed borders will disrupt human interactions of all sorts. Families and friends will be separated. In terms of the humanitarian response to the pandemic, many aid agencies find it increasingly difficult to deploy staff, medical supplies, and other emergency materials to impacted countries, thus hampering efforts to halt the spread of the virus and treat people who become ill from it. It’s a tough call.
Q. As a MPP alum, how has your Woodrow Wilson School education helped you throughout your on-the-ground work in disaster relief?
Mercado: I took a lot of courses that are very relevant to working in this kind of environment, for example a course on negotiations. There is a lot of negotiating in an emergency situation like this when you’re working with different actors and have to convince them to work together under a common strategy and plan to bring about change. Sometimes it involves long, hard discussions on what the best policy choice might be to move forward. So, certainly, that was helpful. I took a course on human rights. There’s a huge human rights element to managing an outbreak and trying to stop the transmission of the virus and at the same time respecting peoples’ basic human rights. I took a course on national security policy and this is certainly an issue of national security for every country affected. Global health security has not been a top-level national security priority generally speaking and the world is paying the price now. I took a course on globalization, and this pandemic was facilitated by globalization. We’re such an interconnected world, especially due to the multitudinous transport links. It’s very easy for disease to jump across borders rapidly and touch a large part of this planet.
Q. What would you say as the University community adjusts during this time of uncertainty?
Mercado: It’s difficult. I think for most people here in the Princeton community and the United States, this is the first time they’ve seen their lives so disrupted. From the way you work, to the way you spend time with your family, to your kids’ education, to how you access health care, to the financial implications. This is brutally disruptive. Nobody has really seen this in their lifetime in the U.S. For me, it’s not such an unusual situation because as a humanitarian aid worker I go to countries that are going through conflicts, natural disasters, or epidemics. I’ve spent a lot of time in countries where order has become disorder, where people can’t take for granted that they’ll have a place to live, an income, food, or have access to clean water or health care. So this is a real shock to people. And it’s going to take some time. It’s not going to be over in a couple weeks. People really have to figure out how they manage this over the coming weeks and months and perhaps longer. Some segments of society will be better off because of their access to resources. But for people who depend on their income week to week, it’s going to be much tougher. We need the government at all levels to step up and make sure the most vulnerable in society are taken care of. People living in poverty, or close to poverty, will be the most impacted. We can’t leave anybody behind. In the end, we have to come together as a society to address the challenges triggered by COVID-19.